Zimbabwe Activists Sentenced for Watching Arab Spring Video

Article excerpt

Found guilty for conspiracy to commit violence, six Zimbabwe activists are given fines and community service. Opposition members see beginning of crackdown ahead of elections.

Six Zimbabwe political activists, threatened with prison for watching a video of the Arab Spring in Egypt last year, have been found guilty, but will be fined $500 each and forced to perform 420 hours of community service.

Initially charged with treason, activist Munyaradzi Gwisai and five other socialist activists could face the death penalty, but the charges were later dropped for conspiracy to commit violence. The February 2011 arrests came at a time when North African protesters had toppled two dictators, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and had set their sites on a third, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Arresting the Zimbabwean activists was seen by many as a strong signal that an Arab Spring-style movement would not be tolerated in Zimbabwe.

President Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have ruled Zimbabwe since the end of the white-minority rule of Prime Minister Ian Smith in 1980.

Speaking outside the courthouse on Monday, Gwisai called the guilty verdict "meaningless" and "outright silly," and said that his arrest was simply another example of "political harassment by the state."

"We are not deterred, we are not intimidated," he told reporteres. "To the ordinary people, this is not surprising. This is a staple of what is happening in Africa and across the world. So we take it as it comes, the struggle continues."

Human Rights Watch called for all charges to be dropped against the activists.

"In the Middle East people get arrested for taking part in peaceful protests, but in Zimbabwe they get sent to prison just for watching them on video," says Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should immediately set these outrageous convictions aside and exonerate all six."

The six opposition activists -- convicted of "conspiracy to incite public violence with a view to overthrowing the unity government" -- included the national coordinator of International Socialist Organization Munyaradzi Gwisai along with other rights activists Antoinette Choto, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Edson Chakuma, Hopewell Gumbo, and Welcome Zimuto.

The six say they were tortured in custody. Eight students who celebrated the relatively light sentencing outside the magistrates courts were arrested, while journalist Columbus Mavhunga was briefly arrested but later released for taking pictures on Wednesday amid heavy police presence.

Political, student, and human rights activists say Mugabe is spoiling for another fight in the aftermath of the conviction of the six in readiness for yet another violent election. This court case is seen as part of a larger crackdown on critics of the Mugabe government, including members of the Movement for Democratic Change led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, which shares power uneasily with Mugabe's ZANU-PF after the disputed 2008 elections. …